Out of all the things there are to love in this world, people are my favorite. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all of the hearts I am connected to and how grateful I am to have so many pieces of people’s lives intertwined with my story. Like the man from Budapest who told me about his daughter’s dreams while in Paris or the father I hugged when he got his son back. I think about the chance encounters that became my greatest friendships; your desk being placed next to mine because you were shy and I was not. I think about you crossing oceans and me moving to the mountains and both of us sitting next to each other on a hardwood floor in a circle, hands on our hearts. I think about all of us applying at the same restaurant as we made our way through college and dancing the night away eight years later on my wedding day. My heart thinks about you, all of the people that have read my words and then became my real life friends.
My heart overflows with gratitude when I consider the details that occurred in order for our lives to touch, the miles and miles we each spent walking the earth that resulted in your footprints making their way to my path. I’ll always believe that people show up right when we need them, to help us grow, to open us up to the possibilities, to carry a message, or to hold our hand in comfort after a particularly stormy chapter. I think about the people I’ve come to know who live their lives in the boldest, most beautiful, and magnificent ways. The people who teach you to be soft, who show you how to be honest and vulnerable, the ones who dare to change their paths to answer to their life’s calling. And I think about all of the people I do not know and all of the hearts that are beating just like mine. I think about entire populations of people that many of us know nothing about, who do courageous things and suffer in ways we cannot possibly understand. I think about all of the people sewing beautiful seeds into their corners of the world, who leave roots for things to grow in every place they touch. I imagine picking a flower they once planted or sitting underneath the shade of the tree they helped to grow.
With my blankets astray and snowflakes falling from the sky from my third floor apartment, I think about the ways in which we enter people’s lives. The ways our own feet lead us into another person’s story and create lasting change. We can show up in the world in big and small ways, like the way we carry ourselves, greet a stranger, or stand in a check-out line. We show up in the ways we use our talents to benefit another person, pursue our passions with every fiber of our being, and how we make a person feel about themselves. We choose the way we treat the people we love and the people we do not know. We can be soft while showing up strong, we can withdraw judgement and seek to connect, to extend a hand. We can help people to see the magic that they are.
I think about my yoga teachers, who without words, showed me how I want to be present in other people’s lives. In the last four months I’ve learned about the gift we offer to people we meet and the people we love when we are present and kind. I’ve learned that the more compassionate and gentle we can be with ourselves, the more compassion we can show towards others. I’ve learned how valuable it is to see each person as a whole, to take note of their heart, and to make room for someone to be just as they are. I was able to transform in beautiful ways because my experiences, challenges, and strengths were not only validated and seen, but celebrated and encouraged. I developed as a person because my heart was nurtured, my words were listened to, and my vulnerability was met with sweetness and love.
When it comes to loving people, here is what I know:
Powerful things happen when we allow people to be who they are instead of who we want them to be.
People transform with compassion, not shame.
When we nurture another human being, we create an opportunity for healing, softening, and growth.
We have the power to impact someone’s life in just one conversation, evening, or experience.
I believe when we show up authentically and vulnerably we encourage others to do the same.
We can stop trying to fix people and focus on loving them instead.
and so I thank you, for being who you are and showing up in the way that you did.
Think about all of the transitions you’ve been through during this season of your life. Maybe you’ve began to raise a beautiful human being that exists with an infinite amount of possibilities or became a beginner again as a new college student. Perhaps you’ve had to navigate this portion of your life without the comfort of a hand you’ve previously held, tiptoeing atop the earth knowing that a part of your soul is in the sky. I like to think that parts of our selves, like leaves, fall to the ground during autumn too. And perhaps the only thing we will ever come to know is that it all changes; the leaves, the weather, our existence.
I moved to a new state four months ago and said goodbye to some of my hearts greatest treasures. I left a job I loved and became surrounded by new people, the mountains, and a different culture. I became a stranger in a city I once somewhat knew, lost again amongst all of the streets and forever trying to find my way. There’s nothing like change in the literal and figurative weather to stir things up inside, creating room for us to reflect, grow, and heal.
I like to think of our individual cracks- the hurts, disappointments, setbacks, heartbreaks, failures, traumas, and losses- as the same veins that characterize our favorite marigold yellow, burnt orange, and red leaves. For the leaf, these veins carry vital nutrients; for us, the life lessons, experiences, and unknowns meant only for our hearts. I believe that some of our most beautiful lessons can be our most painful experiences, if only we might be able to find the meaning deep within ourselves. Within each crack is the ability to be transformed and soothed. I am not suggesting that we forget, but am gently offering that we don’t have to hold on to everything. I believe we find the strength in our healing. The trees teach us that we must learn to let go, that we can find sweetness in the fall. My sweet friend, we can be shattered and still rooted to the ground.
During this transitional period of your life, what would you like to let fall to the earth? We can let go of people that are no longer parts of our stories, experiences that only remind of us of pain. We can let go of the beliefs we’ve held on to about ourselves that feel real but are not true. We can let go of expectations about we are supposed to be be, knowing that we don’t have to be everything for everyone. We can let go of the messages we’ve created or received about our worth and allow old behaviors to fall away, making room for something new.
We can offer ourselves more time, sunlight, or compassion. We can be good to ourselves so that one day, we will open our eyes and find that everything is covered in light again.
my dear friend, our favorite season of fall only exists because things change.
you’ve transformed in beautiful and difficult ways; this is your gentle reminder that we can do hard things.
A week ago today, we shared our vows between two trees in the mountains with all of the most important people in our lives standing before us as witnesses. I know most everyone says this about their wedding day, but it was magical.
Early on, I set an intention to enjoy the process and to maintain perspective- to remember that I wanted to create a marriage that was more beautiful than our wedding. And so I did my best with infusing each step of the planning with love, attention to detail, and a deep appreciation for all of the help we received along the way. I wasn’t always perfect, but I did always try. July 23rd was an absolute dream that I’m not sure I’ll ever wake from and I’ll take from it more than a genuinely kind husband and a new last name. I gained an abundance of wisdom I never expected to receive and a re-commitment to celebrate each of my days with the same peace, happiness, and thankfulness I experienced during our wedding.
And so when people ask about wedding planning advice, I guess all I really have to offer are suggestions about life and things we already know but so easily lose sight of.
What I know is that love exists in moments. Nights of staying up too late talking, learning to swing dance, and falling asleep in buses, trains, subways, and on hard-wood floors. It’s in monthly budget meetings, cooking dinner at midnight, training for a half-marathon, and watching thunderstorms from the front porch while sipping on wine. It’s in those simple, sweet words that get strung together so perfectly that will one day become your vows. These acts of love are the moments that we will be forever nostalgic for.
And when you choose the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, remember that you’re also choosing the person you eat breakfast with, experience heartaches and growing pains with, and a person who will deeply influence who you become. You’re choosing a person who will be in all of the memories you have; a person to sing alongside with during road trips, someone you’ll cry in front of when life gets hard, and a person who you’ll sleep in with on lazy Sunday afternoons. You’re choosing a partner who will not only see you during your greatest and weakest moments, but also endure them all with you.
Choose well. Be with someone who will tell you a corny joke just to make you laugh and who knows when it’s a wine, cheese, and salami kind of day. You deserve a love that lights up your soul in all of the most beautiful ways and knows all of the deepest places in your heart. You deserve a love that is centered around kindness, compassion, sincerity, and warmth; a relationship that is tender, giving, and pure.
The best advice I have is to give away all the love you have in heart, on your wedding day and on unsuspecting moments that feel like ordinary life.
It goes back to love, but take the opportunity to look at every person at the wedding and know that your life story, happiness, and experience in this world has been impacted by all of the warm smiles standing before you. Place your hand on your heart and recognize all of the beautiful faces that showed up in honor of your love and to celebrate your relationship and new life adventure. Know that there may not be another chance to have all of your most treasured people eating together in one place, dancing together during one night. Close your eyes and try to capture it forever.
Notice all of the effort that goes into making not only your wedding, but your life, as memorable as it is and understand that you couldn’t have done this alone. Be mindful of the time spent by your parents making all of the wedding crafts, the sweet gestures of your new in-laws in planning the rehearsal dinner, your bridal party and their willingness to go offer advice and problem-solve challenges, and your extended family members who give up their vacation and contribute their talents into making your wedding day everything you hoped it would be. Recognize that these are the same people that have been offering you their gifts all along.
As a general rule, surround yourself with the people you would like to be like; be kind to everyone and selective in who you allow to become your greatest support. The people who will encourage you to take on new adventures and schedule phone dates with you just so they don’t miss a thing are the ones that will be there on your wedding day and all the days after. Hold on tight to your relationships with them.
And on a different day and in a different setting, look around you. Feel the happiness that wells up in your heart when you focus on the gifts you received in this life that come in the forms of your friends and family members. Focus on the love that brings you all together and gently let go of the rest. I’d like to bottle up all of the love that we were surrounded with on July 23rd and pass it around to strangers on the street in need of a pick-me-up. I believe that everyone deserves that kind of everlasting and unconditional love and I know we all bloom like the magnificent flowers we are when we feel loved, supported, and acknowledged.
3. Everything will fall into place
I think it’s natural to hope that our weddings are beautiful and perfect- but I also noticed that from this comes a hyper-focus on attention to detail, perfection, and rigid ideas about how the day will go. I worried about following the schedule, being on time, and whether the wind would blow our centerpieces away. I worried about whether our moccasins matched the dresses, if the color scheme matched our vision, and whether or not our food would arrive. But life is always teaching and reteaching me that when I loosen my attachment to expectations of how a situation will play out and focus on being open to the experience, everything unfolds in the most breathtaking way. I’m still learning that when we turn ordinary situations into emergencies, we get in our own way of the experience. And I’m still being mindful of the tendency to rob ourselves of the happiness and beauty of the moment by infusing it with our stress or worry.
I practiced allowing the day to unfold and fall into place the most on our wedding day and I smile when I realize how perfect it all was. The interrupted dances, rain on our rehearsal practice, the missing aisle runner, sneaky moonshine, and dipping too soon during our first dance. And as in life, we may not know it at the time but each moment is what we need, exactly in the way we need it.
4. Focus on what matters
Although countless numbers of hours were spent on creating the most serene venue – from the wooden benches to the handmade wood cut slabs and centerpieces- what I’ll remember most is my dad pointing out family members as we walked down the aisle and my two little cousins carrying the train of my wedding dress behind us. I’ll remember my mom dancing the night away with us under the star filled sky, sneaking kisses with my groom, and overlooking the mountains at an incredible view. I’ll replay moments of my bridesmaids sniffling as they heard us share our vows and remember us singing a made-up song to our photographer and watching them sway their hands as my dad and I danced to “My Girl.”
It was easy to get caught up in all of the details- perfecting every last centerpiece and debating over every single hair option, napkin color, and table arrangement. I’m glad I took the time to consider them and create an enchanting atmosphere, but the day would have been perfect without all of that. Don’t lose perspective on the love that brought you to this moment and the love that will sustain your marriage. Don’t get so focused on creating the perfect wedding that you forget to enjoy time with the family and friends that came to share it with you.
There are so many things competing for our attention and so many societal norms demanding our time and money, and in this all, it is our responsibility to choose to spend our energy on enriching our lives. Be unfaltering in your decision to focus on the things that can’t be easily captured or defined and commit to spending your life using up all of the love that you possess. And my dear friend, dance- on your wedding day, in your kitchen, and during salsa lessons- even if you don’t know how to. Promise yourself that you won’t leave the dance floor until you’ve convinced yourself that you have all the moves.
I can’t think about our wedding day and the months, weeks, and days leading up to it without crying. I attribute the constant flow of tears to my heart being so full with appreciation. Never have I experienced people showing up in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways to make us feel so loved and I will always remember this day as a blessing and a privilege.
Live a life of gratitude, of knowing that you have enough, and let the abundance of it all sustain you during difficult times. And in moments of frustration and differing of opinions, take yourself back to the richness of your relationships, the laughter you have shared, and all of the happiness that has colored your life. Take a step back from the push towards consumerism and material pleasures and know that these things will never fulfill our greatest needs. Take a deep breath in and fill yourself with deep gratitude of all that is yours; of all the hands that you’ve held, the scars that have healed, the hugs you’ve received, and the knowledge you have gained.
I still stay up late at night thinking about the kindness received from strangers and new friends in support of our wedding and the people in our lives who continue to teach me what it means to be selfless, flexible, and compassionate. I’m endlessly grateful for a husband who continues to be the best person I know and who always responds in the exact way I need. I’ll always go back to the conversation we had at 3am on the Thursday before the wedding in which he reminded me to hold on to every moment because they would be so fleeting, where we talked about the intentionality of happiness, and choosing to respond to whatever comes our way with love. I’m so grateful for every moment, misstep, and wrong turn that became our love story.
Today was meaningful because sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, and sometimes when it is, you decide to make it last a lifetime by saying ‘I Do.’
we carry collected pain from so many moments. like the time during high school when you were first made fun of or when you didn’t get a high enough score to be placed in advanced classes. maybe you lost yourself in the transition to adulthood, parenthood, or somewhere else along the way. or perhaps you are experiencing pain from the present moment as life is unfolding in a way that is different from what you had planned. we all have these moments. some we continue to know because the wounds remain scabbed, fresh, and open; others are faint scars that have healed over the years. and i believe that like the outside of our bodies that serve as life maps covered with scars from a fishing trip, the first fall on a bike, or stretch-marks after a growth spurt or having your first child; the inside of our bodies carry memories of the experiences we have endured and the emotions we have attached to these moments.
we hold on to the words that hurt us and the disappointments we experienced when the outcome didn’t match our expectations. some people might carry pain, discomfort, insecurities and challenging emotions that come from enduring significant trauma in their life. others might carry the heaviness that accompanies feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, loneliness, or a lost sense of purpose. perhaps you are familiar with the sting of shame that presents itself in a wave of heat that takes over your body or knots in your stomach from feeling unworthy or never enough. and we all carry the pain from the heartache of lost love- whether that loss be from an imagined life dream, intimate relationship, friendship, goal, pet, or family member. our bodies store the emotions we experience and our minds collect all of the words that we consciously or unconsciously think. the sum of all of these experiences equate into who we are in this moment.
and sometimes the present moment is messy. sometimes we have mascara running down our face or we push back tears of frustration that we’ve been fighting with for far too long. and while the present moment can feel like too much to endure, endless, or unbearable, we often feel forced to pull it all together with a smile on our face because showing up honestly and openly feels too revealing and uncomfortable. so we show up in altered versions of ourselves and we act in ways that we do not fully understand; perhaps through increased alcohol consumption, restrictive eating habits, self-harming behaviors, or spending time with people who only pull you farther from your goals. we cover up insecurities through mistaken gestures of love or lose ourselves in misguided attempts to find happiness through busyness, people pleasing, productivity, or materialism. we search for reassurance, validation, and self-worth through other people’s approval, the numbers on a scale, or they way our clothes fit us. and still, something remains missing.
whether it be in large or small ways, these little bits of darkness that accumulate along the way begin to cloud our hearts and chip away at our self-worth, self-love, and inner light.
but the truth is, the world needs your brightness.
you need your brightness.
i know this because i know what it feels like when we go dim. our insides start to feel like a deserted, musty old attic room that aches for a little sunlight and fresh air. you start closing doors and boxing yourself in. you begin to feel like you’re living in a way that’s smaller than you actually are. maybe you’ve heard the little whisper in your heart or ringing softly in your ears reminding you that you are so much more than the present moment. that your life, your deepest radiance, is one of greatness and eternal love.
and if any of this holds true for you, you haven’t lost who you are, you’re just finding your way.
there is a deep calling to self-love within each of us, if only we would get quiet enough to listen, patient enough to try, and enduring enough to persevere. self-love is a fluid process that ebb and flows and because it is ever changing, it’s something we must work on daily. if you aren’t familiar with the shift from inner criticism to celebrating your worth, there are many ways to start:
1.. you can start by honoring who and where you are. begin to learn about the messages you tell yourself and gently consider where it is you find your worth- perhaps it comes from the attention you receive from the people around you, in your productivity, accomplishments, or ability to please others. get curious about your sadness, internal pressures, or constant worrying and perfectionism. maybe it is about making a decision to stop allowing your past to dictate your future while still honoring where it is you come from. you can start by allowing yourself to be exactly who you are in this moment without calling for a need to change or be anything different than you are. and begin to know that who you are is enough and that you have everything within you to become everything you aspire to be.
2.. you get curious about who you are and who you pretend to be in order to meet other people’s expectations. you start observing the comparisons you make or the put-downs you mutter about yourself or others. you watch your unkind judgments and assumptions of strangers and recognize that your perception of others is often a reflection of yourself and the way you are feeling. and during this process, you give yourself permission to gently exit people from your life and make peace with the fact that some relationships and people are not meant for you. you recognize that perhaps inner growth will take place in the letting go, the moving on. it means you lean into the guilt you experience when saying no to others so that you can start to say yes to yourself.
3. you improve yourself through kindness. kindness towards your body and love to your soul. self-love is a practice that includes the way you view yourself when you look into the mirror, the way you talk to yourself in the secrecy of your mind, and the way you nourish yourself throughout your days. the movement towards self love is showing yourself the same compassion, understanding, and kindness that you would treat your dearest friend. its a process of forgiving flaws and owning up to mistakes. so maybe you are kind to yourself by taking a nap in the middle of a sunday afternoon when the sun is shining into your window just right even though you have a million other things that need to be done. or for you, it might be about increasing your awareness of the background noise of anxiety that attempts to drown out your sense of enjoyment and play. it’s recognizing that you are worthy and deserving of the happiness that comes your way and not allowing your mind to rob you of the joy, gratitude, and contentment of the present moment out of fear of future what-if’s, anxieties, and catastrophes.
4. you practice things that bring you joy, calmness, and energy. you start listening to the quiet inner voice that knows your heart and the sweetness that you need. maybe you need a day full of pajamas and blankets or an afternoon of laughter with friends. you begin prioritizing your well-being and understand that you’re most capable of offering the purest love to others when you develop that same love for yourself. i journal. drink tea. read. exercise. i practice yoga and meditate, and sometimes i eat five chewy chocolate chip cookies in a row. i honor my need for personal time and get curious about times when i feel anxious, incompetent, or upset. i share my insecurities and ease in to vulnerability. and when you practice self-love you become selective of the way you spend and give of your time. you stop collecting other people’s negativity and make a decision to be soft and patient with yourself.
5. you allow yourself to heal. and healing can be uncomfortable. our individual experiences of healing will take different paths and different amounts of time, and all of it is necessary for our journey. you welcome the raw and truthful expression of emotion and you promise to be gentle with yourself as you grow. there is no time limit on healing and you allow yourself to take as long you need. it will be a long and windy road filled with detours of disappointments or a return to old behaviors, but you continue to try. sometimes self-love is about allowing yourself to face your sadness, to speak your hurts, and to sit with your feelings. sometimes self-love is recognizing all that you have endured. its looking for those little glimmers of hope that present themselves to us in the darkest of moments.
so i support you to grow in love towards yourself. i challenge you to ask yourself where it is that you hurt and why. talk if you need to or write if the words flow more easily that way. and if the tears come, let them. i encourage you to be a little more gentle, patient, and accepting of your best effort as you try.
i wrote you a letter once and i’ve thought about you a lot since then, mainly because life continues to present its experiences to me and i like to think that we are here in this world learning together. i like to imagine the two of us meeting in a coffee shop with mismatched furniture sipping on our favorite hot tea and exchanging bits of wisdom learned from the struggles we have endured, the tears we’ve cried, and the moments we have celebrated.
i think the thing about advice is that we can share it, but only through experience and overcoming our individual struggles do we ever really understand. i think pain, discomfort, heartache, uncertainty, and raw emotions are necessary for our growth and important in realizing the richness of life. perhaps the lessons learned from my pain will be different from the ones you learn in yours; and maybe we offer these things to each other so that our individual discomforts can be different, although shared, and somehow that is comforting. and so i’ll give you my words in hopes that you’ll get from them something that you need and in hopes that you’ll know that wherever you are, we are both here.
i hope you are always learning, dear stranger. that you look at the world through eyes filled with wonder, curiosity, and imagination. i hope you fail frequently and continue to try. that you view the simplest pleasures through the earnest eyes of a child. i hope you create beautiful things and use all of your senses. that you read interesting books, seek out new adventures, and have deep conversations with someone you hardly know. i hope you listen to the news and read things that challenge your beliefs, i hope you write down poetry and sing silly rhymes. i hope you paint. that you walk. that you touch nature with an explorer’s heart. i hope you listen more than you talk and that you love before you judge. and i hope you know the world to be simple, complex, and wonderful.
dear stranger, we let go of so many moments in our rush to get to the next one. i’m always learning that if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss out on this moment. i hope you don’t wish time away. you’ll miss kindness in the eyes of the cashier, the sound of a small child giggling, and the crunch of the leaves underneath your shoe. when we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the sickness that is busy, we don’t slow down enough to experience the rise and fall of our breath, witness the sun set, or smell the scent of a cool summer’s rain. we don’t hear what our parents are saying, feel the love that other people are offering, or notice a stranger’s attempt at connection. although i understand the lure of the future, the draw towards tomorrow, and the excitement of what will be, i also recognize that we do so in exchange for the now.what i know is that it is about today. right now. this exact moment is your life.
when we constantly reach out for distraction, use our time for mindless scrolling, and focus on the world through a screen, we give away the opportunity to practice patience in moments of frustration and to understand how we truly feel. dear stranger, please put down your cellphone and live in what’s real, in what’s right in front of you. when you are with your friends, family members, strangers, on the bus, driving in your car, in a work meeting, trying something new, eating dinner, relaxing before bedtime, or celebrating something momentous, put down your phone. i worry that pretty soon we will have lived a life of moments captured, but not truly enjoyed. and we will be left with a life that is unlived. unnoticed. and unappreciated. turn off your phone for a while, my friend…. we don’t get these moments back.
i’ve been learning about quality in this last year. the quality of the relationships i have with friends, family, and my community. who i call and who calls me back. quality work, lessons, experiences, and tasks. i’ve come to understand that part of developing quality is about being selective and that it is also about time; choosing how you spend it, what you give it, the amount offered to it, and whom or what we give it to. you don’t have to accept every task, article, or thing to do; you don’t have to accept every argument or conversation. decide what will add value to your life, who will enrich your worldview, and what will bring happiness and then do these things. gently let go of the rest.
pay attention, my friend. notice what you offer the world and yourself through the words you mutter underneath your breath, in the background noise of your mind, and in exchanges you have with people you love and the people you don’t know. focus on the quality of the time, energy, and effort you offer to the world and notice how it comes back to you. are you here? are you present? what message are you sending? what lessons are you teaching? what energy are you allowing to fill up your soul? what relationships are you giving of your heart and your time? and is this the way you would like for it to be?
and when it comes to love, i hope you have the courage to let go of somebody who doesn’t love you. that in your search for a companion, you get to know yourself first, accept your shortcomings, and make peace with your flaws. i hope you let love come when it does and in the meantime you celebrate the wholeness you already are. i hope you don’t accept misguided attention to escape your loneliness, and when your heart gets broken dear stranger, i hope you know that you are still complete. and when you are in fact lonely, i encourage you to seek out connection rather than half-hearted attention. connect your heart to someone else’s, someone who understands your worth. recognize that you are enough and start to learn all of the ways in which you convince yourself that you are not. take time to listen to the background noise that plays throughout your mind and learn that you don’t have to believe every thought you think. and remember that your value is not dependent on another person’s acknoweldgment or acceptance.
i hope you take sometime to look for the cobwebs that may exist in the corners of your heart and decide to let them go, clean them out. past anger, unforgiven hurts, and feelings of inadequacy or not being enough. listen for those whispers that cloud your mind with feelings of anxiety, disappointment, sadness, or hurt. replace them with self-love, compassion, empathy, and gratitude. and remember dear stranger, other people’s happiness and successes are not the absence of your own.
i hope you don’t let your dreams pass you by in exchange for the easier route. i challenge you to create routines and put forth the energy needed to accomplish your heart’s mission. nurture self-discipline and foster the habits necessary that will lead you to your goals. i hope you find something that you are passionate about and live it. i hope you fight for something that is larger than yourself and become all that you already are. and while you are on the way, take care of yourself and tend to your own garden. wish others well. give yourself permission to be strong and in the same breathe, to be soft, to be unsure. take the time to practice being you and drown out the unnecessary noise that tends to clutter our lives. and most importantly, show yourself some kindness as you grow.
dear stranger, give out pieces of your heart without attachment or expectation. share your love, give out kindness, and shine your light.
as a social worker, i consider myself to be a listener of people’s experiences, a collector of stories, and an observer of change. while i may not be able to fully understand each person’s individual experiences, i’ve been attempting to understand my own. i’ve spent the last nine months talking to people during outreach on the streets, at homeless camps, panhandling sites, and at community shelters; more importantly, i’ve spent the last nine months trying to listen. i’ve come to learn of individual life experiences and series of events that lead people to life without a home. these lives are often characterized by trauma, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, loss, inadequate social support, and difficult emotions like anger, shame, and hurt. i’ve also come to learn that these individual life experiences are also most often characterized by perseverance, resilience, resourcefulness, and kindness.
in these conversations, i’ve learned that living without a home is often accompanied with judgement and criticism from others. it comes with name calling, avoidance of eye contact from passerby’s on the street, feelings of invisibility from being overlooked, negative assumptions being made about their worth and character, and often physical destruction of the little property they may have left. i recently talked to someone who tearfully recalled the items that were thrown at her and the names that were called as she sat on the corner selling magazines. i have observed wonderful people lose their lives to substances despite a lifetime of efforts of trying to quit. i’ve witnessed good people make terrible decisions as a result of their addiction and i’ve watched people slowly regain their lives after moving off the street and into their own home. i’ve seen a reduction in mental health symptoms, a decrease in use of alcohol or illicit substances, and a flicker of hope after having basic needs like food, shelter, and safety being met. i’ve observed children who spend their summer at day shelters for people experiencing homelessness and the impact it has on their development. and i’ve stood with and watched men silently cry after moving into their own home after decades of homelessness.
i read facebook posts and see pictures of a society who mock fellow community members because of their situation. i listen to generalizations being made about individuals who are homeless, their work ethic, and worth. and although i am no expert, i hear conversations demonstrating a lack of education on issues surrounding homelessness including addiction, mental health, recovery, affordable housing, disability, and government assistance. i have observed how systems make it incredibly difficult for people to rise out of poverty, obtain employment, and gain financial stability. i have an increasing awareness of the laws and efforts put into place to criminalize homelessness and i’m learning about the impact of racism in our justice systems and the outcomes of youth that are marginalized by it.
and throughout all of this, i have also seen the impact of people working together; of communities uniting to provide resources, support, and encouragement to others experiencing homelessness- to their community members. as a result, i have witnessed a reduction in chronic and veteran homelessness, an increase in understanding, and a realistic goal of eliminating this social problem. i am learning that widespread change is possible and that we all can be part of the solution. i am learning that as humans, we naturally want to connect with others, and that by learning about other people’s stories, we can begin to understand the complexities of each person’s situation and offer compassion, healing, and support rather than condemnation, discouragement, and marginalization.
i think sometimes we get so busy judging other people’s choices and focusing on our political affiliations that we lose sight of the uniqueness of a person’s experiences. i believe that when we begin to cluster people in large generalizations and negative stereotypes, it becomes easy to write off an entire population of people. what i know is that our lives, communities, and world are enriched when we bridge the gap between our differences and try to connect with one another. and i believe that our personal judgements- regardless of the situation- are also opportunities to look inside ourselves to challenge our assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices, values, and lack of information. i’d like to think that if we all just took the time to genuinely listen to another person’s life story, we might recognize the similarities of existence that we all share.
i hope that my life message is one of compassion and love. of understanding and non-judgement, of openness, curiosity, and acceptance. and while i fail regularly, i know that i will continue to try to be quick to listen and slow to judge. i hope to respond with patience and to be a light during another person’s darkness. i hope i continue to grow as a person because of the people who decide to touch my life with theirs.
i hope to sit with others in their brokenness, confusion, and times of need with grace, sincerity, and presence. i will continue to challenge myself to deepen my understanding of the diversity of the human experience and the limitations in society’s structures. what i know is that love begets love and kindness fosters kindness. what i know is that when we choose to love others we allow ourselves to see the good that exists in all of us; and when you see this inherent goodness we can begin to treat people with respect, kindness, and love…. we can help people to become all that they truly are.
i challenge you to open your heart, your mind, and your ears.
i challenge you to respond with compassion and to act with love.
i can’t remember how old i was, but i remember being in my parents’ room, sitting on their bed with a plate full of snacks. the moment i started watching the movie, i knew that it had been made just for me. and i’ve always been a little bit selfish when it comes to stumbling across a favorite movie, quote, or book- of holding on to the stories they contain like treasure- trying to keep all the magic they consist of just for myself. so i can remember my elementary school self not wanting anyone else to know about “Patch Adams.” i was going to be him, i remember thinking. i was going to be person who brought light to the lives of others, who was attentive to other people’s suffering, and who knew what to do to help make it better. i can distinctly remember not wanting anyone to know about Patch Adams because i thought the world would only need one of him, and i wanted it to be me. i’ve grown up since then. and i’ve learned that having the tiniest impact on the world is about focusing less on one’s ego and more on one’s understanding of the challenges, solutions, and contributors to a problem. but that movie became the spark that ignited my dream to go to college to become a doctor.
like many of you, i have my own Robin William’s story.
as you may know, i held tight to the dream of becoming a Patch Adams kind of doctor, until my junior year of college. and as you may also know, i chose to become a social worker instead. this choice has afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the most remarkable and resilient people i could have ever hoped to meet. and so in the last few years, i have spent time talking with people who are homeless, people who have a severe and persistent mental illness, people who have been diagnosed with other mental illnesses, people who have endured traumatic life experiences, and people who are struggling to make it through the day. i’ve had the opportunity to get to know people whose lives have been very different from Robin William’s, but perhaps similar in their experience of depression and suicidal ideation.
and in the days, weeks, and month following the initial shock over Robin William’s death, i’ve noticed that the conversations about suicide, depression, stigma, treatment, and mental illness have waned. but it has left me thinking about the friends, family members, consumers, Veterans, and people i’ve come to know who have struggled with depression, addiction, other mental health challenges, or thoughts and plans of suicide. i’ve never personally experienced depression, but i know that it can feel a lot like darkness, like an unexpected blow to the stomach, or like a heavy feeling of dread that you just can’t seem to shake. i know that depression can mean not feeling anything at all, or being numb to everything you are feeling all at once. it can mean feeling withdrawn or withdrawing yourself from the world. and i know that depression can feel a lot like a sinking hole that you cannot climb out of.
what i know is that suicide is often a symptom of major depressive disorder- a mental illness caused by a number of biological and environmental factors. what i know is that over 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness (including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders). and for people who experience chronic and recurrent symptoms of major depression or other mental illnesses, suicide or thoughts of suicide may come to feel like a comforting solution or viable option to end the pain that no longer feels endurable. depression is not a choice nor a character flaw, and it is not a decision of someone ‘wanting to feel sorry for themselves,’ or not being able to cope with life’s challenges. suicide is not about being selfish or weak, but rather, it’s about pain. it’s about loss of hope. and i think we forget that it’s human nature to want to end suffering, to find relief. to be clear, it is not my intention to encourage, promote, or advocate for suicide. i am however, challenging you to empathize with another person’s experience before making a judgement or criticism about their character.
since beginning this profession, i’ve been collecting other people’s stories. and these stories- their life experiences- have been guiding and shaping my interactions with others. conversations with people who are both chronically homeless and transiently homeless demonstrate to me the complicatedness of poverty, the challenges of locating affordable housing, and the difficulties of maintaing competitive employment while also living with a mental illness and/or addiction. play dates with children in foster care and with children who have been severely abused and neglected remind me of the impact of abuse on cognitive development, emotional regulation, and attachment. and when working with these children when they later become adults, i consider their childhoods and the traumas they’ve endured. i think it’s important to recognize the number of factors that contribute to a person’s behaviors and perception of the world. i am also aware that some people-regardless of their upbringing, or despite having a ‘healthy’ upbringing- will make poor choices. and even then, i attempt to understand. because what i know is that you cannot reduce people to simplistic generalizations based on your limited understanding of their situation.it is much more complicated than that.
and what i know is that there are still so many people in this world who do not understand. who choose not to understand. and who continue to blame people for the suffering they do not take the time to understand. and so if your understanding of depression or suicide is one that blames the person who is struggling with the mental illness, i would challenge that your knowledge of their life and experiences is incomplete. i would challenge you to have one conversation with a person who has had thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, or who struggles with a mental illness. i challenge you to be curious rather than judgmental. open minded and open hearted. i challenge you to seek to understand rather than assume that you already know.
and so this post is for you. for those whose suffering feels unnoticed. for those people who feel quietly stuck inside their mind. for those that feel hopeless. for those whose cries for help are mislabeled or misunderstood as cries for attention or flaws in their being. for the people who feel too tired to continue on. for people who struggle with depression and for people who don’t. for people who are having a bad day, a bad season, or a rough stretch of life. and for those people who don’t understand the illness but are willing to try.
It’s okay – whatever you need, wherever you are, however long it takes – it’s okay.
there is still time.
to ask for help. to grow. to heal. to recover.
there is still time for the sunshine to begin to seep through the cracks. for a flower to grow straight from your heart.
just in case.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They are available 24/7
Talk to someone online through the Lifeline Crisis Chat
Teens can get text support from the Crisis Text Line by texting “listen” to 741-741.
Veterans in crisis can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.